Harold (Jim Broadbent) is in his sixties, living out an uneventful retirement in Devon with his wife Maureen (Penelope Wilton). Then one day her receives a letter from his old friend Queenie (Linda Bassett) in Berwick-upon-Tweed, where she is dying of cancer. Harold hasn’t seen her for years. He writes her a rather stilted letter but, on the way, to post it, something happens which causes him to believe that by walking from Devon to Berwick he can save her life. And so Harold sets off totally unprepared on his unlikely pilgrimage.
Like another recent pilgrimage film, The Last Bus, in which Timothy Spall’s character underwent a similar odyssey the length of the British Isles in honour of his late wife, Harold’s story is revealed to us along the way, subtly in flashes rather than long flashbacks. The tragedy in his life, which has turned his marriage into a hollow shell, his turbulent relationship with his son and finally the debt that he owes to Queenie.
The structure of the film – a journey, the people he meets, the revelations of his past – is a well worn one – see also Forrest Gump – but it works well and there are times when Broadbent is quite heartbreaking
Among those he encounters on the journey are an immigrant doctor, forced by UK immigration rules to earn her living as a cleaner, who heals his feet, battered as they are by the fragile footwear he was wearing when starting his pilgrimage. A young man, who believes he has found God and becomes for a while like a surrogate son to Harold And a stray dog, who attaches himself to Harold. Inevitably the pilgrimage is noticed on social media and the resulting press attention gains Harold a whole gang of headline grabbing camp followers.
Broadbent is excellent as always. So too is Penelope Wilton in a subtle and many layered performance as his bewildered wife Maureen, left behind to do the hoovering with no idea of what is going on and why her husband is doing this. Linda Basset is effective in a far too small role of the dying woman – we are left wanting more of her – and Earl Cave is striking as Harold and Maureen’s son David.